Interview: John Cleese
In February, a brand new version of a classic French comedy comes to the New Theatre – and it marks the stage writing debut of John Cleese. A delicious blend of French Farce and Fawlty Towers, Bang Bang! stars Tessa Peake-Jones, Tony Gardner and Wendi Peters (but not Mr Cleese – he wanted to but they wouldn’t let him) and breathes new life into an overlooked masterpiece. Moment editor Toby Venables talked to John Cleese about the play and how it came into being.
It’s hard to believe you’ve avoided writing for the stage for so long. So, why now?
Well, you have to go back to my first visit to a farce in 1966, which was A Flea in Her Ear with Albert Finney, and I’d never laughed so much at anything. I didn’t really know about French farce and thought ‘Who is this guy Georges Feydeau?’ Over the years I saw a few more – The Girl from Maxim’s, Sauce for the Goose and so on – and I just began to love it, not just because it was funny but because I loved the mathematical side of it. I got into Cambridge on maths, and was fascinated by the intricacy and logic of the plotting. That gave me an emotional charge, at least as much as I got from the laughter and the funny situations, so I thought one day I must try to write my own farce. Of course, Fawlty Towers were all farces, but that was on TV. I was basically in television in the 60s and 70s and then in the 80s I was in movies more, but what happened was that in the 80s when I was working with Charlie Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda) he had a French wife, and I got her to translate some Feydeau plays for me, or rather for her to do synopses of them. So the idea has been there for a long, long time.
And why this particular play?
Later on, I was in LA with a certain amount of time on my hands, because it was pre- the divorce… and I went into Samuel French’s one day and bought some Feydeau farces, and those were the first I actually read. And I just realised I’d stumbled upon a gem, and nobody knew about it! It had this terrible title – 13 Rue d’Amour – given to it by a couple of guys who had found it and translated it into English. It wasn’t a very good translation… But when I realised what a great plot it was I got someone to do a literal translation and then about three years ago sat down and – quite rapidly – rewrote the first act in a very basic way. I didn’t have much to do with the second – that just required some cutting – and the third was already perfect. Once I got that done I managed to get it put on briefly at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester, but there were things that didn’t quite work for the London critics. A couple of them didn’t like it, so it kind of faded away for a bit. Then I was approached by a fellow who had been Artistic Director at Colchester, Daniel Buckroyd, who was now at Exeter Northcott Theatre, who said to me: ‘I’d love to do it, because I was at the original read-through at Colchester and I didn’t think the production was as good as the read-through… I’d like to have a go at it and direct it myself.’ I was thrilled, so I said ‘You go ahead!’ Then he broke the bad news, which was that rehearsals were taking place in Exeter in February. So, I broke the rule of a lifetime and came back to England in February… So I watched the rehearsals, and made suggestions and asked questions and got involved in it in that way. But right from the beginning, Daniel, has been working with the excellent cast he’s got together to get the whole thing in complete shape, and then I come along again at the end – because I know little tricks of performance, some of which are terribly simple, like ‘Don’t move too much!’ You never read that in a book, but it’s among the various things I’ve learned. Or, when he’s saying that speech to you, don’t look at him. Simple as that. And it suddenly becomes funnier.
You’ve always been a writer, but when writing the farce did it help having also been a performer in Fawlty Towers?
That’s interesting! Yes, I think when I was doing Fawlty Towers I was learning, but I was learning all the practical things. I had to learn a whole episode in six days. But I think I instinctively knew how to do farce acting, and from the time I first saw the Marx Brothers I just learned it very easily. You know how you find some things easy and others very difficult – this was just something that came to me, like first nature.
Did you set yourself limits for how far you could go with changes to the play?
No, I’m not like a proper translator who takes a novel and feels a loyalty to the original. I don’t feel like that. If anyone wants to read or perform the original play, it’s there. I just didn’t feel the first act was very good and I think my first act is better! That’s terribly arrogant, but I actually think it is. But when you get to the third act, that’s where the great comedy construction is, so you just follow that. That bit’s easy!
This is very different from Python – in that, characters can escape the sketch by having someone come on and say ‘This is silly!’ but there’s no escape in farce – it’s kind of like a pressure cooker…
That’s right. I remember when we did the first episode of Fawlty Towers, the director said to me: ‘You’ll have to get them out of the hotel more…’ Completely wrong! It’s exactly that pressure cooker atmosphere that allowed things to build up. I had ways of building those up – one of which is to cut to an absolute minimum the number of time lapses, because every time there’s a time lapse it means the pressure comes off a bit, and you have to build it up again. There are things I do like that to keep pressure up, because the greater the pressure the more stressed people become, and the more stressed they become the worse their decision making becomes – so they’re always making things worse instead of better!
Do you see a film coming from this?
One of the things I love about theatre is that you can watch the whole stage and see exactly what’s happening. Of course, it’s important that the actors are doing the right things to focus the audience’s attention on this thing instead of that, but they can still watch the whole thing. If it’s a two or three-handed conversation they can watch two or three faces. If that was on film it would be using close ups and two-shots and that would mean that the director was choosing for you who you should be looking at. I think it’s better to shoot comedy in the wide shot. But if you try and shoot it in a really wide shot, so you see as much as you’d see in the theatre, you wouldn’t be able make out enough on the screen, so that’s not going to work. That forces you into editing with close ups. But I think it’s funnier without those. For that reason I think farce is funnier on stage than it can ever be in the cinema.
New Theatre Peterborough
Tickets: 01733 852992 or www.newtheatre-peterborough.com